In many ways the struggle is real right now in Philly. More murder, racial tension, and hate crimes happened in our neighborhoods this week. Terrorism is no longer an overseas problem: there’s been a mass shooting in the United States for every day in 2015. The economy has not recovered from the 2008/9 wage recession; the jobs that have been recreated are paying on average $14,000 less than the ones we lost a few years ago. Philly’s “deep poverty” rate (people with incomes below half of the poverty line) is almost twice the national average, making us the poorest big city in America. (Our sister Camden’s rate is 3 times the national mark.) Sixty thousand of our children live in deep poverty. The Philadelphia School District at one time had 176 professionally staffed school libraries; now there are 11 left. If that’s not enough, many types of cancer are being found in younger people, and scientists are predicting that we’ll experience dire consequences to global warming in the next fifty years or less. It’s no wonder that political candidates can find a lot of anxious and angry people to incite.
Fear is real, as might be expected. People are into self-protection and self-medication. Many of us know someone who overdosed recently or is caught in the addictive cycle. Families are fragmented, and loneliness is not alleviated by social media or hook-up encounters. Smith & Wesson’s profits have tripled in the past 4 months. Many of our friends with mental health issues are having a tough time right now. Heck, many people are having a tough time right now, period.
What IS totally unexpected is Christmas. The more I understand it, the more surprised I am. The prophet Isaiah who predicted Christmas was part of the tiniest nation surrounded by the largest and most brutal military power the world had ever known. It was an terrifying situation, but he foretold the birth of a baby (of all the seemingly powerless and insignificant things) who would rule with mercy and change the world. Poor young Mary was totally surprised by God’s favor and the announcement of the impossibility inside her. The no-name shepherds were not expecting the sky to light up on their lonely hillside, and to be gifted with the news of the incarnation before anyone else more reputable and religious would know and have a chance to meet him. John the Baptizer was shocked when Jesus asked to be baptized by him, and his theology of judgement and law was upended by love and identification and mutuality. The whole story is full of ridiculous reversals, impossibilities, and unexpected grace in the midst of tension and conflict.
I see these miracles among us too, regularly, in our Circle of Hope. Sometimes it’s a cool “coincidence” like someone telling me they have a bunch of handmade blankets to give away right before a refugee comes to our cell meeting with that exact need. Or two young mothers looking to donate breastmilk on the same day that my new 4-week old foster niece arrives underfed. More often, though, it’s an everyday thing: leaders rising up with faith, compelled through their own struggle to share hope with others. People not withholding themselves from God and others, even though relationships can be scary. People learning to pray because they are hungry for change. People freed up by forgiveness. People making space in their already busy lives to serve because they are compelled by something greater than their limitations. People sharing their limited money and resources to build something amazingly generative together. People trusting God in the church and forming it together even though “religious” groups are suspect.
In our uncertain times, fear makes sense. It’s the default norm, for obvious reasons. But the surprising message of Christmas comes to us again… quiet, small, out of left field, but spot-on. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people. A Savior has been born for you.” It’s still as surprisingly personal and indwelling as Mary experienced it, too: God has been mindful of me. He lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things. May God surprise you in midst of your struggle this season too. May we be humble and quiet and open enough to receive the word, even if all our fear impulses seem louder or even more sensible than Jesus.